The old adage of “practice how you play” certainly applies to trail races. A lot of my training up to this point for the Afton Trail race 50k has been on streets and “managed” paths and yes, even the treadmill. But with the warm weather showing up sooner than expected I’ve been able to get out on some trails and train the way I’ve been wanting to. I should have gotten out even sooner when there was snow on the ground but it is what it is.
Since it was so warm and beautiful out yesterday I decided to make the short trip from my house and drive down to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge/Minnesota River Bottoms. I had never ran this trail network before and now that I have, I’m very eager to go back. Starting at the Bloomington Ferry Rd. access point, I went for a 22 mile out and back. Because of the quick and drastic snowmelt, the trails were muddy. Really muddy. My Scott’s were constantly caked in mud and I was sliding all over the place. Whenever possible, I tried to run on the “shoulder” of the trail so that my feet could find better purchase in the soft ground. On multiple occasions it was unavoidable that I would plunge my foot into icy and muddy water up to the ankle and just when I thought it was drying out it’d happen again. Often times I thought this is what I Atreyu must have felt like in the Swamp of Sadness.
Despite the trail being in less than ideal conditions (including having to cross a waterway by way of a fallen tree), it was an awesome time. The undulating trail is relatively flat overall and though there’s not very many steep climbs, the terrain does change. Transitioning from running on mud, to sand, to hard-pack, to gravel, to dirt service road, and back to mud forces you to not only change your running strategy, but makes you work different muscle groups as well. The refuge itself is beautiful, and it wasn’t overly packed with people, despite being housed in the large suburb of Bloomington. In fact, if not for the occasional reminders of a highway I would run under, or a factory I’d catch a glimpse of on the other side of a lake, it’s very easy to forget that you’re in a major metropolitan area. The trails wind through beautiful trees and marshy areas and there are a lot of migratory waterfowl flying around and overhead. At one point on the return leg, I saw a pack (herd?) of no less than nine large white-tailed deer out for a forage in the warm weather.
Training in all types of conditions and preparing for all variables is all part of the training process. Whether it be a trail or road race, mountain bike race, backpacking trip, or climbing event, ideal conditions are rare. It is therefore imperative to put your mind and body into a space so that it can handle whatever, whenever. Hopefully running on mud trails will put me one step closer (pun intended) to be in that head space.
With summer gone and free time to mountain bike less and less frequent, I took advantage of the good weather until it really starts to get cold. Over and over again I read and hear that Lebanon Hills is the trail of choice in the region if not the state. The MORC trail review for Lebanon hills says “Plain and simple: This trail has developed into one of the “must ride” trails in Minnesota“, and I’d have to agree. Not only is there enough mileage here to keep you busy for a good chunk of your day, but there’s something for everyone here.
I’m on record that I’m a bit more of a novice trail rider. The intermediate trails – especially “Dream II” – are fantastic trails that are equal parts good climbs and fast descents. These trails gave me enough technical challenges but also made it fun to fly around curves after a climb. One thing that quickly stood out to me was rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. Even on the intermediate trails, Lebanon Hills loves to test your ability to navigate large and small boulders and your ability to pick a clean line and stay with it, both uphill and down. Good challenge.
If intermediate trails are too, well, intermediate, Lebanon Hills also offers a lot of technical riding in their “Expert Loop”. I tried it, and at times it was a ton of fun, but I wouldn’t say that I really excelled at it. Huge log piles, tons of rocks, drop offs, you name it. Numerous times there were large rock fields that kicked my A and I came to a grinding halt. Had I known what I was getting myself into I would’ve approached the trails differently, but when you’re flying around corners essentially blind not knowing what to predict, it’s different. My favorite sections on these trails were the massive log piles. I had never hit logs stacked so high, so it was a good test. My least favorite had to have been climbing up hill with at least 7 good-sized logs spaced about 10 feet apart from each other. I’m not too embarrassed to say I probably only made it over 4 out of the 7 cleanly. Better luck next time.
There’s a lot to like at Lebanon Hills, and when there seems to be a constant movement to continually make it better and more of a destination, which isn’t the case for a lot of trails around the metro area. I’d have to agree, it’s a must ride.
Check out my ride here (although the time’s a little off since I forgot to start my watch after a break, like an idiot).
Since I’m more of a novice biker, the skills necessary to ride over some terrain with technical and challenging obstacles eludes me. I still try, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not altogether successful with those attempts. So I ventured to the northern burbs and checked out the new singletrack at Elm Creek Park in Champlin.
The trail was designed and created with the help of MORC and is well maintained. There isn’t a ton of climbing on this track, but to me, that’s most of the charm. What Elm Creek doesn’t have in obstacles and technicality, it makes up for in speed. And of course, going fast is a blast. It was a ton of fun to push my bike and get going as fast as I could. A lot of other trails have too many twists and turns just for the sake of having twists and turns. It was refreshing to have long trails where I could anticipate far enough ahead and be able to build a little speed to hit a jump.
There are a few obstacles, but I stress the word “few”. Most of the “obstacles” are trees with a narrow gap in between them. The man-made obstacles are far and few between and they present little challenge, but are fun nonetheless.